Throughout Gainesville, creeks vanish into the ground, becoming part of the Floridan Aquifer. Along the two short but rugged trails that comprise this loop – the Moonshine Creek Trail and the Creek Sink Trail – you’ll see the lush vegetation that grows along the Moonshine Creek as well as enormous deciduous trees in a forest surrounding the marshy sinkhole that swallows the creek.
Length: 2.5 miles
Fees / Permits: $4 per vehicle / $2 per pedestrian
Good for: birding, tough terrain, big trees, geology
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: at trailhead
Open 8 a.m. to sunset. Bicycles are not permitted, but dogs are welcome.
From Interstate 75 exit 390, take SR 222 (NW 39th Ave) west 2.9 miles to CR 241 (NW 143rd Street). Turn right. Drive 2 miles north to Millhopper Road (NW 69th Ave) and turn right. Continue 2 miles to the parking area on the south side of the road.
Starting from the parking area, walk towards the picnic pavilion and privy, following the trail as it turns left to meet a kiosk with park information and trail maps. Walk down the trail to the T intersection – you’ll be counted by an automated counters – and turn right to wander follow the trail into a sandhill habitat. As the trail climbs a slight hill, keep alert on the right, as there is a pine and an oak that have welded their trunks together; they’re so close that they’re probably sharing DNA. The broad, needle-strewn path goes up and over a rise and then descend past a sign that says “Please stay on the trail,” all the while paralleling Millhopper Road. Chinkapin oaks, short specimens with serrated leaves, grow on the left. Sweeping to the right, you enter a climax sandhill area dense with laurel oaks. At a quarter mile, a sign points to the left; this is the start of the loop.
Following the Moonshine Creek Trail, you quickly descend into the deciduous forest on a narrow, steep, and rooty footpath into the ravine. Sugarberry, hackberry, and oaks tower overhead in a layered canopy. A clump of needle palms clings to a steep slope. The understory is thick and vine-tangled, noisy with birds. Poison ivy and Virginia creeper send tendrils across the forest floor. It’s an almost continual descent; roots form a staircase in one spot. Off to the left, just past a little arrow marker, you see the landscape fall off precipitously to the left into one of the sinkholes. A beaten path leads down to its edge for a look. Continue along the main trail, which levels out as you enter the floodplain of Moonshine Creek. You see an arrow marker in a yellow circle, the blaze for this loop. The footpath becomes sandy amid the bluestem palm. Shaggy bark and big leaves helps you identify a large swamp chestnut oak along the trail. The trail curves away from it, passing another sink with a large fallen tree obscuring your view of it.
At 0.6 mile, you reach a little bridge over Moonshine Creek, where wildflowers more commonly associated with the Appalachians thrive along its banks, including trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit. The stream is clear and sand-bottomed, sluicing its way through the forest. After you cross the bridge, it’s a climb uphill past some limestone-loving spleenwort ferns. Crossing a swale where an ephemeral stream sometimes flows, you see a pond inside a sinkhole with mucky shores where raccoons have left their tracks. The trail curves right, away from the pond, and goes uphill past bluestem palms. Off to the left, you can see how the landscape drops off in the distance. Sundial lupine carpets the forest floor.
Passing a cluster of needle palms dappled in sunlight, the trail curves to the left and comes up to the base of a massive slash pine with an odd indent to its trunk, as if an elephant had leaned back on it. Look up. You can hardly find the crown of the tree against the sky, it’s that tall. It doesn’t even start branching until about 70 feet off the ground. Dropping off this small ridge, the trail descends into the floodplain of Moonshine Creek to meet its junction with the Creek Sink Trail at 0.8 mile. You can see a bridge over Moonshine Creek to the right. Turn left.
The Creek Sink Trail is the lesser traveled of the two loops. It’s marked with faded orange blazes and newer red discs with arrows on them. Very little sunlight gets through the canopy, so mosquitoes are prevalent. The trail drops down into a rooty and sometimes wet part of the floodplain, and curves to the right. Native bamboo, switchcane, grows in the understory. Turning left, you scramble uphill out of the floodplain to the top of a small limestone ridge, where trillium grow along the slope. The trail curves to the right through this dense hardwood hammock before dropping back down steeply into the floodplain area. Cinnamon fern and bluestem palm grow in swales beneath the trees. A thick steel cable, perhaps left behind by loggers long ago – or the fellows that manned the still at Moonshine Creek – mimics the coils of a nearby grapevine.
Passing through a stand of young spruce pines at about a mile, the trail descends past two trees in a close embrace. Many of the trees through this part of the forest are of significant size, especially the slash pines. The trail crosses a bridge over an ephemeral stream at 1.1 miles. You can see a willow marsh off to the right. After the bridge, the trail ascends, curving to the left through the hardwood hammock, climbing a bluff above the marsh to the base of a massive Southern magnolia. Looking down towards the marsh again and uphill to the slope forest, you realize that you’re inside a giant sinkhole and the marsh is in its bottom. This is Creek Sink, the end of the line for Moonshine Creek. A short side trail leads to an overlook above the sink.
Leaving the viewpoint, the trail climbs a steep uphill to a spot where, when it rains, water pours down the slope, creating a messy muddy spot where rainfall will cascade downslope to the sinkhole. The trail turns to the right, showing off how the forest drops off precipitously towards the center of the sink, before leading you on a rapid descent complete with waterbars to minimize erosion. It feels like a hike in the Southern Appalachians, and increasingly so as the habitat shifts from slope forest to a deciduous forest that also a haven for trees of increasingly amazing size. Flattening out a little, the trail turns to provide another perspective of the willow marsh in the sinkhole.
Walking beneath tall sweetgum and hickory, you curve around the edge of the bottom of the big sink at its shoreline. Another red marker on the tree confirms the route. Following the edge of the willow marsh briefly, you can see open water in the middle of the sink. The trail turns away from the sink and begins its climb upward between tall loblolly pines into the deciduous forest. The distant hum you hear is Interstate 75. Dropping down through a small floodplain, make your way carefully across the spreading roots of large red maple trees. Once you’re across the wetland, the trail climbs up a slope and heads directly between the bases of two very tall pines. Notice the immense tree trunk on the right, and look up. It’s an eastern hophornbeam, and it has to be more than 100 feet tall. Now that’s a tree.
More large trees are on this slope, which the trail zigzags up and up, passing another large swamp chestnut oak. Climbing uphill beneath grapevines and Southern magnolia, you see another red trail maker, and the trail flattens out again. Sugar hackberry and pignut hickory are the enormous trees in this part of the forest. Just beyond the next trail marker is a brown sign. You’ve reached a T intersection with the Moonshine Creek Trail after 2 miles. Turn left.
After a slight uphill, you see a yellow blaze, confirming you’re back on the main trail. As the trail flattens out, you start to hear traffic on Millhopper Road again. With a thick, gray-splotched trunk, the sugar hackberry on the right looks like it is made of poured concrete. It has a sizable girth. The dense forest breaks up a little; you start to see laurel oaks and slash pines as the path broadens. At a trail junction, an old forest road comes in from an angle from the left, and a sign points to the “Exit.” Passing a trail on the right, the descent you took earlier into the ravine at Moonshine Creek, you’ve completed the loop. Follow the broad path back through the sandhills to the trailhead to complete this 2.5 mile hike.